‘A blessing to be challenged’: PHS class of 2021 graduates, overcoming the odds

Published 3:38 pm Friday, May 28, 2021

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By NATHAN HOWELL | Staff Writer

PELHAM – Nearly 250 seniors in the Pelham High School class of 2021 filled the Pelham Civic Complex on May 27 standing at what valedictorian Shaun O’Neil called the “summit of our childhood.”

This graduating class faced disruption unlike anyone before them, but it certainly made each student better in the long run.

“The dawn of our high school experience four years ago was a solar eclipse, a unique disruption to the national order. To the contrary, such disruption proved not to be unique,” O’Neil said. “Down the final stretch of high school, disruption has become our middle name. The structure in our lives crumbled and the natural order was thrown out of whack. Consider it a blessing to be challenged and impeded, for if we had not faced obstacles we would not know how high we could jump.”

It would be easy to focus on the negative impact that the COVID-19 pandemic had on the class, but students like senior class president Emma McKenny saw it is an opportunity for growth.

“I don’t know about you, but I find it cool to know that we will be in the history books in a century. What is not so cool is that a whole section will be dedicated to our toilet paper shortage,” McKenney joked. “Amongst the hardships that we have had to face, great memories have been made and critical lessons have been taught along the way. The lifestyle changes we went through were all difficult, however as we built new habits adjusting to our new way of life it got a lot easier.”

This class truly exemplified the phrase “defying the odds,” as was noted by Principal Kim Kiel who emphasized the importance of what the school was able to do in the face of being told that they can’t.

“The bizarre effects of the historic pandemic has touched all avenues of our existence and to deny it in a conversation here is not only impossible but would seem to be deficient on my part,” Kiel said. “If I am being completely transparent with you this school year has truly been quite a blur. Without blinking we shifted into obvious uncertainty. As August approached, and your senior year began, the months that followed required a combination of game-time decision making for necessary adjustment without the wisdom of a previous game film.”

Kiel went on to list the accomplishments of the class that they were told they wouldn’t be able to achieve following up each with “we did.”

“Guess what? They say we can’t have a graduation ceremony to celebrate this outstanding senior class. Hello. We did. To allow the pandemic to define the class of 2021 is doing a complete disservice to this group of seniors. This class hasn’t chosen to be a victim of circumstances, but instead they have chosen to be a victor. You will remember all of the ‘we dids’ and choose to forget all of the ‘we can’ts’.”

Pelham Mayor Gary Waters addressed the graduating class offering a gift in the form of a puzzle piece, to tie in a special meaning of how individuals come together to make something whole.

“Every single piece of that puzzle is unique in every way,” Waters said. “You can’t complete the picture without this particular piece. You are the living equivalent of this piece of the puzzle. Your first task when you get out of here is to find out where you fit. Knowing that only you can fill that void. When you find where you belong, you will make a contribution as unique as your piece of puzzle.”

Each of the graduating seniors walked across the stage moving over that metaphorical summit that O’Neil mentioned into their adult lives.

“This grand ceremony is more than a pat on our backs,” O’Neil said. “Today is the launch date into a world of independent choices and prime opportunities. Today we grab the wheel of our lives. As we travel through each day two questions are essential. What do you carry, and why do you carry on? Remind yourself daily of the people and values that prepare you. Be daring in your dreams, but be mounted on your morals. There is a desperate need for love and unity, and we are absolutely capable.”

Photos available at Shelbycountyphotos.com.